The lasting legacy of the Vietnam War in Laos

A young man sat at the desk of the COPE Centre in Vientiane, Laos, working at his laptop. He went by the name of Peter Kim, which was embroidered on his t-shirt. He had a slight build, shiny black hair styled into a bowl cut, and brown eyes.

Peter went about his work, shuffling through his backpack, plugging a USB stick into his laptop, discussing business with a member of the COPE Centre staff. He looked for all the world like any other young Laotian guy.

Except that Peter had no hands. And he was blind.

Peter, whose given name is Phonsavath Souliyalat, was 16 when he suffered the tragic accident that left him blind and maimed.

"My friend and I went for a walk one day, and we were playing," Peter told me. "My friend picked up a bombie. He didn't know what it was and he threw it to me. It exploded and I lost my eyes and my hands."

The "bombie" Peter referred to was a cluster sub-munition that had been dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. It and millions of others failed to explode on impact, rendering large swaths of the landscape extremely dangerous.

Peter's left arm ends just below his wrist; his right a few inches below the elbow. Scars from the explosion mark his face.

Peter recounted this gruesome tragedy to me in a matter-of-fact voice, then hurried on to tell me that he had taught himself English in the three years since his accident. He also described his advocacy work with the Ban Advocates, an activist group that pushes governments to ban the use of cluster munitions like the one that robbed Peter of his hands and sight. He seemed eager to move on from his injuries and focus on what he had achieved since the explosion. Peter was proud to tell me that he had met former United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Laos.

Then Peter asked where I'm from.

"The United States," I responded, cringing.

His face lit up. "Oh, the United States! I like it there. I want to go there someday."

Having spent the last hour and a half learning about the ways in which the United States government had destroyed the lives of millions of people in Laos, I couldn't fathom why. I'm not the type of person who feels guilt for the misdeeds of my country's government, but I was baffled nonetheless that Peter spoke so cheerfully about America, without a trace of (rightful) hate in his heart.

The UXO legacy

Peter Kim is one of thousands of Laotians who have been maimed or killed by unexploded ordinances (UXO) left over from the United States' air campaign against communist forces in Laos during the Vietnam War. Between 1964-1973, the United States Air Force dropped 260 million sub-munitions from cluster bombs, known locally as bombies, on what is now the Laos People's Democratic Republic. Thirty percent of those did not explode on impact, littering the Laos countryside with literal time bombs that continued to detonate in the three decades since the war ended.

According to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Center in Laos PDR (UXO-NRA), roughly 50,000 people were injured or killed in UXO incidents between 1964-2008. Three hundred are maimed or killed annually.

There are several types of UXO in Laos, the most prominent of which are cluster bombs. These devices are dropped from planes and detonate in mid-air, spraying dozens to thousands of bomblets across an area. They are highly effective at decimating a region, causing widespread casualties and lasting financial and psychological ruin, especially in a poor country such as Laos.

COPE Laos

The COPE Centre in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, houses a small but powerful exhibit educating visitors about the UXO problem and the lasting traumas the bombing campaign wreaked on this impoverished country. The centre is run by COPE Laos, a not-for-profit organization that provides free prosthetics and therapy for those who need them. Their patients include children who were born missing limbs or with medical conditions such as club feet, and people who have lost extremities due to leprosy. Thirty percent of COPE's patients were maimed or disabled by UXO.

The COPE Centre exhibit highlights the UXO issue, a problem exacerbated by the country's poverty. One display involves a collection of prosthetic legs that were gathered from locals. These are makeshift pieces, cobbled together out of scrap metal and wood. COPE provides quality prosthetics and rehabilitative therapy to those who would otherwise spend their lives limping along with these unsanitary and unsafe false limbs.

Elsewhere in the exhibit is a replica of a typical Laotian hut, where the audio to a BBC documentary plays, providing the chilling backdrop to what is seen in the museum.

"This incident is part of the deadly legacy of the Indochina War, which continues to haunt the people of Laos..."

Visitors can watch an interview with two parents whose son died from sub-munition injuries in 2004. The boy, Hamm, was nine years old when he was killed. He and a friend followed a group of scrap metal collectors working outside their village, picking up pieces that were discarded by the adults. Unable to tell the difference between scraps that were safe for carrying and those that were explosive, Hamm picked up a live one that ripped his body apart.

Hamm's parents were summoned and found their son gravely wounded, but not dead. They hired a driver who took them from hospital to hospital, none of which had supplies of blood and oxygen. Eventually, the driver told them he did not want the boy to die in his car for fear of the death bringing evil spirits, and Hamm was taken home to die.

A deadly legacy

There are countless stories like Hamm's, and like Peter's. Scrap metal is a precious commodity and can bring in desperately needed money for rural families. Collecting it, however, means that men, women and children are going into areas that could very well contain explosives that will go off when disturbed.

Because so much of the land remains contaminated, once thriving farming communities are unable to work large portions of it, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty.

Before that moment, I had never before consciously felt embarrassed to tell someone I'm American. I'm not one to take ownership of the behavior of the American government, or make apologies for "my country." But I felt embarrassed nonetheless. I had had no idea about the atrocities committed in Laos, and could not recall ever having learned much, if anything, about this country before arriving in Asia. The idea of being even remotely associated with any of the horrors that continue to be visited upon the innocent people of Laos made my stomach turn.

Efforts to clear Laos' landscape of UXO continue to this day, and the work is slow-going and dangerous. All 17 provinces were hit, and a third of the land is thought to be contaminated.

Though Peter's optimism and the COPE Centre's commitment to providing health aid to those who need it were inspiring, I left the effort feeling helpless and enraged. I thought not only of the thousands killed during the actual U.S. campaign in Laos while it was in progress, but also of the thousands who have died needlessly since. How could someone like Peter reconcile himself to the fact that he lost his eyesight and his hands because of a bomb that was dropped on his country before he was even born?

Whenever I visit places like this, I try to take something positive from it - inspiration from people who have overcome adversity, are able to rebuild their lives from tragedy, do something in the service of humanity. But this time, I couldn't muster it. I did admire Peter and COPE's work but all I felt was disgust and despair because the same kind of tragedies and war crimes are being visited upon other people in other countries all the time, to this day, always with someone's justification.